A total of 67 libraries have closed in Great Britain this year, while library funding has been slashed by £25m, figures from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) have revealed.
The data report released today (8th December) shows that the number of libraries fell by 1.7% in 12 months to 3,850 in the year to April 2016. This number is lower than the closures a year previously, which saw a drop of 106 libraries (2.6%). The fresh figures mean a total of 478 libraries have closed across England, Scotland and Wales since 2010.
At the same time, visits to libraries were down by 5.5% from 265m to 250m for the financial year to 2016, according to CIPFA. This is a larger decline than a year prior, which saw the number of visits drop 3.9% from 276m to 265m.
The figures for services England, Scotland and Wales also showed that total expenditure for library services fell by £25m, from £944m to £919m in 2015-16. The previous year saw funding stripped by £50m from to £944m in 2014-15.
Last week, the Libraries Taskforce announced a new £4m dedicated fund which will finance initiatives for disadvantaged communities such as literacy schemes, improving access to technology or increasing the number of children visiting libraries as part of its Libraries Ambition report. But the figure looks meagre compared to the £25m drop in funding last year.
Labour's shadow culture minister Kevin Brennan said that the "staggering fall" in library spending was a direct result of the government’s policy of "starving local councils of the resources they need".
"In its own Libraries Taskforce recent report, a five to one benefit to cost ratio is quoted as the return on investment in libraries," Brennan said. "This government’s approach is endangering the availability of good local libraries right across the country.”
Rob Whiteman, chief executive of CIPFA, said the fall in library funding comes at a time of “unprecedented budgetary pressures” for local councils.
“In this climate really tough decisions are having to be made about all sorts of services and libraries and just one of the services bearing the brunt”, he said.
Whiteman added that despite the "grim outlook", libraries are continuing to "transform and innovate, adapting to changing visitor habits and providing a raft of new services and offerings”.
Over a five-year period, the figures show that visits to libraries have fallen by 16.2% to 250m in 2015-16. Over that time the number of full-time equivalent staff has fallen by 19.3% from 21,138 staff members in 2011-12 to 17,064 in 2015-16, while the number of volunteers has soared 90.2% from 23,397 to 44,501 in 2015-16.
The subject of volunteer-run libraries has been the source of much contention among campaigners.
Last year, members of librarians' association CILIP voted "overwhelmingly" to oppose the "amateurisation" of the public library service, which is caused by the library buildings and contents being run by the local community with little or no funding for professional or paid library staff.
Earlier this week, the Libraries Taskforce pledged to undertake research into community-managed libraries following concerns about their "long-term sustainability".
Gemma Todd, a librarian working in the West Midlands and soon-to-be Headline debut author with her book Defender (January 2017), gave an insight into what working conditions were like for librarians who have faced severe council cuts for several years.
“Library workers across the country have had six years of being at risk of losing our jobs and our libraries," she told The Bookseller. "Every year, we go through the same process of budget proposals, potential cuts, risk of redundancy letters, consultation processes where we must ask all our customers to fill in questionnaires. Every year, we get nominated for cuts, and every year we don’t know if we’ll even have a library or a job in six months’ time. A rolling process of insecurity, fear, frustration and helplessness."
The CIPFA figures also revealed that expenditure on books, newspapers, periodicals and magazines in the 2015-16 financial year has fallen by 8.4% from £64m in 2014-15 to £58.8m in 2015-16. Online and electronic expenditure also decreased, down 2.7% from £12.2m in 2014-15 to £11.8 in 2015-16.
Nick Poole, CILIP chief executive, said that the government's response of "cutting budgets and hollowing out services" should not be the way of treating "amongst our most used and trusted public services". He added that it is "essential" that libraries are given support and investment in future budgets.
"The Autumn Statement was a missed opportunity to invest in innovation and growth through library network", Poole said. "If government wants to create an economy that works for everyone we need to urgently address the skills and literacy crisis facing this country. It is now essential that libraries are given support and investment in the Spring Budget."
Veteran library campaigner Desmond Clarke told The Bookseller that the figures "confirm the failure of the library service to confront its issues over many years". He said that the Libraries Taskforce, along with other professional bodies needed to "urgently address" the 16.2% decline in usage and "develop a radical and innovative plan to revitalise the library network”.
Tim Coates, former Waterstones boss and campaigner, agreed that the decline in usage needed to be addressed.
He said: “The story is not that funding was reduced by £25m - which is a very small amount compared to the £900m cost of the service. It is that there is no attempt to arrest the declining quantity and quality of book stock - which is the cause of the reduction in public use of the service.
“The minister and the DCMS Taskforce dabble in the insignificant issues around the smallest 10% of the service and do nothing to address the main problems that are evident in the figures. They need to change their approach urgently.”
A DCMS spokesperson said: “Libraries are hugely important community assets and we are absolutely committed to helping them flourish and prosper in the 21st century. That is why the Libraries Taskforce has published a strategy for the service in England to ensure they are more resilient and better utilised by local authorities.”
The top five most visited libraries last year were Library of Birmingham, which received 1.6m visits, Central Library Manchester, which 1.48m people visited, Wembley in Brent, visited by 1.38m people, Norfolk & Norwich Millennium, attended by 1.26m people and Woolwich in Greenwich, with 1.14m visits.
Read Gemma Todd's full blog about how it feels to be a librarian amid the changes to the library service in the past decade here.